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New ‘smart needle’ could help diagnose lymphoma and other cancers

Published: 16 December 2019

Scientists funded by NIHR’s Invention for Innovation programme (i4i) have developed a new experimental technique to detect cancerous tissue using light.

The multidisciplinary team created a ‘smart needle’ probe that can identify cancerous tissues or cells almost instantly. The probe uses a technique called Raman spectroscopy - shining a low power laser onto tissue and measuring the light reflected back.

The probe is made up of fibre-optics encased within a fine needle that can look for cancer under the skin’s surface – for example, in the neck. Healthy tissue gives a different signature of reflected light from cancerous tissue, and research shows it is possible to detect a ‘fingerprint’ of the disease that can be used to spot cancerous tissue in a few seconds.

Professor Nick Stone, project lead from the University of Exeter, said: “The Raman smart needle can measure the molecular changes associated with disease in tissues and cells at the end of the needle. Provided we can reach a lump or bump of interest with the needle tip, we should be able to assess if it is healthy or not.”

The team believe the new technique could help speed up cancer diagnosis and reduce the need for diagnostic surgery, particularly in lymphomas, which affect over 15,000 people every year in the UK. Diagnosing cancer earlier means it’s more likely to be treated successfully.

So far the probe has been tested on 68 patient samples in the laboratory, showing it can differentiate between healthy and cancerous tissue. The team from the universities of Exeter, Bristol and Gloucestershire Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust are now beginning a three-year project to test the probe in a small group of patients for the first time, with the eventual aim of setting up a clinical trial to find out if it can help improve diagnosis for lymphoma.

Dr John Day of the University of Bristol, who built the first prototypes of the probe and continues to work on optimising the design, said, “If our probe is successful in clinical trials for lymphoma, then it opens the door to applying it to many other cancers in the body.”

Find out more about the smart needle probe on the University of Exeter website.


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